Defining American Design: A History of the Index of American Design, 1935-1942

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The Index of American Design was created in the fall of 1935, as one unit of the Works Progress Administration's Federal Art Project. Although government-sponsored art projects of the New Deal era, and in particular, the Federal Art Project, have been examined extensively by historians of American art and culture, the Index of American Design has received very little attention. Yet, the Index is important because it existed during the 1930s as a popular and well-known endeavor. On however small or conservative a scale, it reflects a constellation of thought and activity which was the result of the specific circumstances of that decade. In the following thesis I will outline a history of the Index project as it was part of the Federal Art Project, and as it was part of the growing movements of decorative arts and folk arts collecting during the 1930s. I will examine the ideas of three Index administrators: Holger Cahill, director of the Federal Art Project, Constance Rourke, Editor of the Index, and Ruth Reeves, field supervisor of the Index, in order to identify some of the underlying ideals which shaped the project. In addition, an examination of how the Index interacted with two specific audiences: collectors of decorative arts and the artists themselves, will reveal how the Index idea was turned into reality.